Book Review: Blood Lance

Book Review: Blood Lance by Jeri Westerson


This is the fifth Crispin Guest novel, featuring a disgraced knight of the Fourteenth Century who takes up a career of detection, earning the nickname “Tracker.” I have not read the previous volumes.

Guest happens to witness a man falling from a bridge into the Thames. By the time he reaches the man, the fallen person is already dead–and he didn’t drown. The dead man was an armourer, who it would appear owned a piece of the Lance of Longinius, a relic that supposedly pierced the side of Jesus Christ, and grants victory in battle. The lance has since gone missing, and multiple parties are working at crosspurposes to find it. Two of these are old friends of Crispin’s, but are they his friends now?

All this is set against political maneuverings in the English court, as soon-to-be adult King Richard’s favorite is losing his grip on power. The climax of the novel is an exciting trial by combat, with the actual solution of the mystery for a coda.

The noir elements are quite obvious; the morally ambiguous but still upright protagonist, everyone having secrets and many of those unpleasant, miserable weather and darkness (at least at the beginning, authorities who can’t be trusted and the detective’s falling for a woman too close to the case.

One tricky element of the story is the Spear. This is, apparently, not the first time Crispin Guest has come into contact with a supposed holy object. And while it’s left ambiguous whether or not the Spear actually has any powers, (Guest himself is a skeptic) the coincidences keep piling up. Towards the end, at least one character believes that these are not coincidences, and that artifacts seek out Crispin for a purpose as yet unknown.

It’s a good read by itself, and I would certainly be willing to look up other volumes in the series.

Disclosure:  I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an ARC, so minor changes may have been made in the final product.


Book Review: The Avenger #7 (Murder On Wheels, The Three Gold Crowns and Death To the Avenger)

Book Review: The Avenger #7 (Murder On Wheels, The Three Gold Crowns and Death To the Avenger)


The Avenger is one of the classic hero pulp characters, a man so strongly affected by a horrific crime that all color drained from his skin and hair, and his face became frozen.  Determined that no one else should suffer as he had, Richard Benson gathered a few allies who felt as strongly as he did about crime, and founded Justice, Inc.

This volume is one of the Sanctum Books reprints, containing several stories.

“Murder On Wheels”:  The plot of this story involves a stolen prototype super-car that revolutionizes automotive engineering.  But it’s far more notable for being the story in which Kenneth Robeson (actually Paul Ernst using the house name) changed the Avenger.  Apparently, sales of the Avenger magazine weren’t doing as well as expected, so management decided that perhaps the Avenger was just a little too weird for the readers to relate to.  So it was that Richard Benson was subjected to a super-science death trap that didn’t actually kill him, but did cure his albinism and nerve damage.  He was also de-aged by the narration.

The story also introduces Cole Wilson, the last member of Justice, Inc. to join.  For much of the story he’s a surprisingly enigmatic character, who may be playing both ends against the middle.

Murder On Wheels does show some seams where the mandatory new elements don’t quite jibe with the old ones, but the writer does manage to give a sense of urgency and surprise to the Avenger’s transformation,  making it clear that this is an important change.

“The Three Gold Crowns”  is the first full story of the new-look Avenger.  Justice, Inc. is hired by a man who’s being three of the most respected men in the city.  An anonymous tramp is run over by a train.  A young woman fears for her life after apparently witnessing a murder.  Alll of these events are connected by the mysterious three gold crowns.

After several stories with heavy sfnal or horrific elements, The Three Gold Crowns is a relatively mundane plotline.  Only a murder by way of modern painting is truly bizarre.  Instead, interest is kept up by way of twists, turns and the fact that the whole truth isn’t being told.  As the new kid, Cole Wilson gets quite a bit of focus in the story.

A fine tale with an explosive ending.

“Death To the Avenger” is a later piece by Emile C. Tepperman, who took over the writing duties after the Avenger’s magazine ended and he became a back-up character in other pulps.  This is a more hard-boiled tale, and a shorter one.  Richard Benson decides to get rid of a particularly well-connected mobster, only to have said criminal kidnap Nellie Gray to force a hostage swap.  Bad news, criminal, the Avenger doesn’t do hostage swaps.

Rounding out this volume is a Whisperer tale, “High Explosive” by Alan Hathaway writing as Clifford Goodrich.  A mad scientist is threatening the city with a new development in seemingly unstoppable bombs, and Police Commissioner James “Wildcat” Gordon, aka the Whisperer, must stop him.  A quick, thrilling adventure.

Overall:  Highly recommended to pulp fans for the historic value–beginners may want to seek out the first volume for the more iconic tales.


Book Review: A Planet of Your Own/The Beasts of Kohl

Book Review: A Planet of Your Own/The Beasts of Kohl


Back in the day, science fiction and fantasy novels tended to be much shorter than they are now.  In some cases, so short that they didn’t make a decent-sized paperback.  So Ace Books came up with the Ace Double, two novels (or short story collections) in one, with the contents and covers upside down from each other.  This gave good value for money.  The book we’re looking at today is one of these.

A Planet of Your Own by John Brunner, first–Kynance Foy is a young woman from Earth who decided to go out and make her fortune among the stars…and failed. At the end of her rope, she’s offered a job by the Zygra Corporation. A job that sounds too good to be true, despite the obvious hardships. But she’s desperate, so sign she does. It isn’t until she gets to the planet of Zygra that she discovers the true nature of the trap, but is it too late?

Good stuff: This is a rare mid-Sixties SF book with a competent female lead. Amusingly, towards the beginning she lists off traits that in bad fanfic would make her kind of Sueish (smart, multi-skilled and exotically beautiful) but it turns out that the further she gets from Earth, the more common these traits are, to the point that normal fifteen year olds are earning the equivalent of a doctorate.

The moment Kynance figures out what the trap is, she sets about systematically disarming it, using the skills she established earlier. And when male characters show up, they don’t take over the story or assume control just because they’re men. Kynance simply works them into her plan. And there isn’t a shoehorned-in romance, either. Just a hint at the end that now that she’s made her pile, Kynance might consider a relationship, possibly with one of the male characters.

Not so good stuff: Kynance’s boss sexually harasses her as an added topping to his other slimy activities, just to reinforce that he’s the bad guy here. There’s the people calling a grown woman a “girl”, and being surprised she’s in the Zygra job (though the same character admits that a woman would be equally able to do it.) And the ending relies heavily on the legalistic version of technobabble.
The Beasts of Kohl is by John Rackham. Kohl is an aquatic lifeform that travels to other star systems, explores them, and sometimes brings back smart animals to serve it. (Thus the title.) But one day, Kohl’s bipedal servant Rann asks a question that makes Kohl realize he isn’t just a very intelligent animal, but a fully sapient being like Kohl itself. Since Kohl’s ethics prevent it from enslaving true setitents, it decides to take Rann back to his home planet for a visit, so that Rann can make an informed choice about his life.

Joined by his female counterpart Rana (who has had a less wise master and is thus more emotional and unskilled), the great canine Gromahl and thehunting bird Virgal, Rann accompanies Kohl to a certain small blue planet. What none of the visitors realize is that quite some time has passed on that world, which has changed considerably. And in a single jam-packed day, Rann and Rana learn both good and ill about their home world and its inhabitants.

It’s a fast-paced story, with some nice “outsiders looking at Earth culture” satire, but the latter half depends entirely too much on coincidence to speed things along. This easily could have been twice the length without spoiling the plot. There’s some gender essentialism, and some readers may groan at the “nerdy guy gets the incredibly hot girlfriend” subplot.

Also, the story is implied to take place on Earth in “the near future” from 1966, so it’s interesting to see what the author thinks would have changed, and what looks exactly like the Sixties.



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