Book Review: Journeyman Wizard

Book Review: Journeyman Wizard by Mary Francis Zambreno

Journey

Jermyn Graves is a spellmaker, a rare kind of wizard that can reshape old spells for new purposes, and even create new spells for other wizards to use.  Or rather, he will be once he finishes his journeyman training with the only master spellmaker in the land.  When Jermyn arrives at the isolated village of Land’s End, however, he finds that the winter cold is more than matched by a chilly reception from certain people.

Lady Jean Allons’ household has been struck by tragedy and family rancor, making for tricky navigation for the young wizard.  When tragedy strikes again,Jermyn must use his training and the help of his skunk familiar Delia to solve the mystery before he himself is condemned to die.

This is the second in a young adult fantasy series about Jermyn, the first being A plague of Sorcerors.  It’s a pleasant light read.  While Jermyn is a talented wizard beyond his years, his inexperience shows, and he lets prejudice get the better of him when dealing with a local hedgewitch.  Jermyn’s seventeen in the story, but there’s nothing that makes it unsuitable for younger teens.

The worst thing I can say about the book is that it’s a little forgettable–it wasn’t until halfway through that I realized I had read it before and thus already knew who the murderer was.  Check your local library for this and the previous book if student wizards are your cup of tea.

Book Review: Warrior of Scorpio

Book Review: Warrior of Scorpio by Alan Burt Akers

Scorpio

This is the third in the Prescot of Antares planetary romance series.  For newer readers who might not have seen the term before, a “planetary romance” is a subgenre of science fiction in which an Earthling (or someone of Terran extraction) is transported to and stranded on an Earthlike planet with a savage set of local civilizations.  He (and it’s almost always a “he”) will then proceed to kick butt thanks to his superior Earth musculature and training, kill or ride exotic beasts, and fall in love with a princess (who will eventually return the favor.)   The John Carter of Mars series by Edgar Rice Burroughs is the granddaddy of the subgenre.

In this case, Dray Prescott is an Eighteenth Century sailor plucked from Earth to the planet Kregen, which orbits Antares in what we call the Scorpio constellation.  This is the work of the enigmatic Star Lords who drop him in various situations that they want resolved.  In previous volumes, he became nigh-immortal along with his beloved, Princess Delia, only to be snatched back to Earth.  Once again on Kregan, he led a slave revolt, which was apparently a little too successful.

In this volume, Dray Prescot is snatched from the rebellion, but manages to avoid being sent to Earth, instead being dumped onto an isolated farm just in time to save a woman and child from invading “half-men.”  He also saves enslaved archer Seg Segutorio, who joins Prescot on his journeys.  By good luck, Dray is reunited with Delia, and they decide to go back to her kingdom to finally get hitched.  She has an airship to take them over the dangerous Hostile Territories, but things are never that simple in an adventure story….

Good stuff:  Plenty of fast-moving action–our heroes are in peril on a regular basis from all sorts of weather, beasts and people.  If you like the manly man sort of protagonist, Prescot is certainly that, but is anti-slavery so we know he’s a good guy.

Not so good stuff:  Planetary romance tends to have some racism and sexism problems.  The former is indicated by the word “half-men” (and Prescott often mentions in his narration that he learned better about the various races of Kregen later.)  The sexism comes on stronger, with women being in the story to be rescued by Prescot and/or throw themselves at him.  (This volume does pass the Bechdel test with a very brief conversation about botany before the women turn their attention back to Prescot.)  One notable scene has two women who are not Dray Prescot’s love interest fighting over which one of them should be.

When the subject of rape comes up, a minor character allied to Prescot indulges in victim-blaming, and no one disputes him (he vanishes from the story shortly thereafter, fate unknown.)  And there is a scene that is no question about it headed for tentacle porn before Prescot breaks free and kills the critter.  It’s not nearly as awful with the sexual politics as Gor, but is well below Barsoom.

Other stuff:  The framing device is that Dray Prescott was temporarily on Earth in the 1970s and dictated the story into a set of cassette tapes, some of which have gone missing.  Thus the author can skip ahead through slow bits or areas where he got stuck.

Overall:  Not your best entry into planetary romance; look up the John Carter books.

Giveaway: Some Kind of Peace

Giveaway: Some Kind of Peace.  This Giveaway is closed.

Some Kind of Peace by Camilla Greve & Asa Traff

In the interests of doing new things, I’m trying a book giveaway.  The book in question is “Some Kind of Peace” by Camilla Grebe & Asa Traff, which I reviewed earlier this month.  Please be aware that this is a previously read copy, the same one I received from Simon & Schuster.

Rules

1.  The contest begins today, May 19, 2013 and runs to May 31, 2013.

2.  One entry per person, entries take the form of a comment to this entry on the subject of “Why I like Scandinavian thrillers” or “Why I want to read a Scandinavian thriller.”

3.  The winner will be determined by me, SKJAM! based on perceived quality of essay.  If I can;’t make up my mind between the best entries, I will use a random number generator.

4.  US addresses only, sorry international people.  Your prize will be shipped by USPS.

Enjoy the contest, and feel free to recommend it to your friends who like Scandinavian thrillers!

Book Review: Nick Carter Volume 1

Book Review: Nick Carter Volume 1

Nick

Nick Carter, master detective, is a character with a long history, in three distinct phases.  He started in 1886 in stories most associated with the dime novels, was reinvented in 1933 for the pulps, and then again in 1964 as “Nick Carter Killmaster” for a long running series of action paperbacks.  It’s the 1930s incarnation that this volume focuses on.

The house name for the writers of Nick Carter stories was Nick Carter; the first story in this volume, “Marked for Death” is by Richard Wormser.  It’s Nick’s pulp magazine debut, and establishes Nick as a master of disguise and detection who isn’t afraid to use the three revolvers he carries.  While more violence-prone than his Nineteenth Century incarnation, Nick is still more cerebral than hard-boiled.

Nick is called to Boston from his usual New York haunts by a friend whose father has been  murdered and is now being hounded for money he supposedly owned.  Problem is that last time he was in town, Nick Carter showed up the Boston police, and they are not going to be cooperative.  Warning:  Nick does not like Pomeranians, and casually kills one to test a theory.

“The Impossible Theft,” by Thomas C. McClary, is from 1934.  It involves the theft of a quarter-million dollars from a bank in a manner which seems, frankly, impossible (and is never satisfactorily explained.)  As a seeming side note, a cheap replica idol used to decorate the bank also vanishes.  Nick Carter quickly connects this with the visit of a certain Maharajah to New York and infiltrates his Westchester mansion as a magician.

This story is much more fanciful than the first, and invokes the work of Charles Fort, as well as heavy doses of Orientalism and “the mysteries of the East.”  People from South Asia are likely to find the depiction of the Maharajah and his court laughable, insulting or both, despite Nick’s new-found respect for some of their number.

The script for the first episode of “The Return of Nick Carter” radio series is also included.  “The Strange Dr. Devolo” was written by Walter B. Gibson (scribe of the Shadow) and Edward Gruskin.   The seemingly immortal mad scientist is using a weird crystal to hypnotize wealthy people into believing they’re famous people from the past.  Nick has to track him down using secretary Patsy as a decoy and expose the strange doctor’s trickery.

The volume is rounded out by Nick Carter’s comic book incarnation from 1947, in “The Lucky Stiff” by Bruce Elliott and Bob Powell.  Nick and Patsy go to the horse races, but the fix is in–in more ways than one!  Despite the murder, this is a lighthearted tale that ends on a laugh.

There’s also several text pieces that introduce the various aspects of Nick Carter’s career.

Overall:  While not up to the quality of the greats, these are some rip-roaring pulp tales.  If you’re willing to put up with the period racism, you should be able to enjoy them as examples of one of American lowbrow literature’s enduring characters.

Book Review: Ghosts in the Yew

Book Review: Ghosts in the Yew by Blake Hausladen

Ghosts in the Yew by Blake Hausladen

I bought this book directly from the author, who markets it by going around to conventions in person.  He’s hoping that by the time he reaches the third or fourth book in the series, he’ll thus have an inbuilt audience.  I will say that it seems to have done well at getting readers to actually review the book on Goodreads.  Since it’s a first novel, I’m going to be a bit more nitpicky than I otherwise might.

When political scheming by Prince Barok of the Zoviyan Empire against his possibly more evil half-brother Prince Yarik backfires horribly, the young royal finds himself going into exile.  Accompanied only by Leger, an alcoholic war hero who’s been appointed his alsman (head servant) as a slap in the face, Barok finds himself ruling the remote and dilapidated province of Enhedu, whose people (and the ghosts of the title) are less than happy to have him.

Soon, Prince Barok is joined by his one faithful servant, Dia, a concubine who has her reasons for being grateful to the otherwise less than admirable prince.  It’s about this time that Barok learns a few things about his heritage he wasn’t aware of, and that his exile might be less coincidence than fate…or someone’s plan.  Now Barok must somehow restore Enhedu’s prosperity and prevent its people from being forced into slavery.

There are four first-person narrators, Barok, Leger, Dia and Geart (Prince Barok’s former bodyguard, who spends much of this volume in prison or slavery.)  This can get confusing, as most of them have very similar narration styles–Barok’s more distinct at first, until his personality changes.  With the switching back and forth, it takes a fair amount of time before it’s clear where the plot is going.

Quite a bit of time is spent on the community building part of the plotline; the author’s researched well, but this does require some patience on the readers’ part.  The volume is illustrated, some maps, some scene-setting photographs and diagrams, and a couple of handwritten notes that are a bit hard to read (especially the one that is supposed to be hard to read.)

I do see a lot of potential here, but this was perhaps a little ambitious for a first book.  I noticed a tendency to overdo the negative qualities of some of the villains, for example.  A neighboring lord isn’t just greedy, he’s fat, ugly, balding, rude and illiterate.  A meddlesome woman isn’t just self-righteous and judgmental  she’s also fat, lazy, nagging, frigid and either doesn’t understand how pregnancy works or tells easily spotted lies about it.

This is also a book that could use a glossary.  There’s three different military units that all have names that start with “H”, for example, and that took some leafing back and forth to figure out which one was which.

This is a relatively low-magic setting, at least until near the end, when one of the characters really gets to cut loose.  In the final chapters, we also get a few details that make the religious struggle not quite as simplistic as “sky father religion bad, earth mother religion good,” but it’s a very small caveat that is likely to be more important in later books.

While it’s an okay read, I would need to see some strong improvement in the next volume before recommending the series.

Book Review: Some Kind of Peace

Book Review: Some Kind of Peace by Camilla Grebe & Asa Traff

Disclosure:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Some Kind of Peace by Camilla Greve & Asa Traff

 

Siri Bergman is a Stockholm psychologist who is suffering from the loss of her husband, their unborn child and a crippling fear of darkness.  So it’s perhaps understandable that she wonders if she’s going round the bend when it appears she’s being stalked.  Then one of her patients turns up dead in her backyard, an apparent suicide.  It quickly becomes apparent that her stalker is very real–and very deadly.

Some Kind of Peace is another in the recent fad of imported Scandinavian thrillers.  This one is much more on the psychological thriller side than a mystery, which makes the choice of protagonist appropriate.  The day to day business side of psychology is written plausibly; not surprising given one of the sister authors is herself a psychologist.

The authors give a game try at making the thriller cliche of the distressed woman who does everything possible to make her situation worse from a safety standpoint and doesn’t spot important clues plausible.  The stalker isn’t a diabolical mastermind (in scenes told from their point of view, the stalker frequently makes mistakes) but Siri is just that messed up.  Still, it gets a bit over the top and if this were a movie, the audience would be shouting at the screen.

A bit I liked was that the timeframe of the story moves from a seemingly idyllic summer through the chilling fall and climaxes in darkest winter as Siri becomes more aware of the danger she’s in.

Trigger warnings: rape, abuse and abortion are discussed.

If you don’t mind that the story would have been half as long if the protagonist wasn’t so self-sabotaging, Some Kind of Peace is a good example of the thriller genre.

Book Review: Every Hill and Mountain

Book Review: Every Hill and Mountain by Deborah Heal

Disclaimer:  I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway in the expectation that I would review it.  This review will contain heavy spoilers.

Every Hill and Mountain by Deborah Heal

This is the third in a trilogy about Abby Thomas, a denominational college student on a summer service project to be a tutor to economically disadvantaged eleven-year-old Merri.  They discover that Beautiful House, a program on Merri’s computer, allows them to view (and experience!) past events in old buildings.  They soon draw in a young man named John Roberts, who starts a romantic relationship with Abby while helping them explore the history of Merri’s house, once a station on the Underground Railroad.

In this volume, Abby’s revealing of this information to her college roommate backfires when said roommate, Kate Greenfield, shows up with her fiance Ryan Turner in tow.  It seems Kate has run into a brick wall in her family research.  An ancestor named Ned Greenfield was born at Hickory Hill in Equality, Illinois–but that’s all she can find on him or his parentage.  She asks Abby to help her using the Beautiful House program.

Equality, once a thriving salt mining town, seems friendly enough at first.  But the townspeople become considerably less welcoming once the subject of Hickory Hill comes up.  Abby and her friends soon discover some painful truths about the past.  But God is in the business of redemption, and makes all things new.

This book is aimed at the Christian young adult market, so there is quite a bit of God-talk.  An exact age range is a little harder to pin down.  The topics of rape, torture and the cost of human lives of slavery may be a bit heavy for younger teens, while the sexual prudishness of the protagonists will probably have older teens, particularly ones not raised in more conservative Christian communities, rolling their eyes.  Conservative Christian parents, on the other hand, are likely to approve of Abby and John’s chaste relationship.

There is a brief cameo by real-life evangelist D.L. Moody, the author of The Overcoming Life which I review here: http://www.skjam.com/2014/01/26/book-review-the-overcoming-life/ .

The book has some serious flaws, which I will talk about in the spoilers section below.  I can only recommend it as an introduction to the history of slavery in Illinois–there’s a list of  further reading books in the back that are more to the point on the subject.

SPOILERS

The biggest problem I have with this book is the villain of the modern section, Ryan.  Abby takes an immediate dislike to him on first meeting and it’s easy to see why.  The man is a horrible excuse for a human being, consistently putting his worst foot forward.  He has zero appealing personality traits.  Which would be okay if this were a different kind of story, one where the villain is mostly offstage so that the stalwart heroes only see him when he’s opposing them.

But instead he’s a tag-along for the group, in most scenes, repeatedly failing to show any redeeming characterization.  By the time of his “sudden but inevitable betrayal” Kate looks less like an impulsive young woman in love, and more like someone who’s really, really stupid and needs it spelled out to her in large letters that Ryan is bad news.  Tellingly, the one time Kate mentions what, specifically, she likes about Ryan, we aren’t allowed to hear it.

Ryan would have been a much better character if he were allowed to show positive character traits, reasons why Kate might have chosen to be his fiancee or special skills that made him valuable to the group.  Even having him make valid criticisms of the protagonists’ actions might have helped.  In this way, his final betrayal would have seemed less inevitable and more of a heartbreaking experience.

Looking at it another way, some in-story evidence suggests that Ryan may be either brain-damaged or not actually from Earth’s culture.  (Seriously, a college student who is unfamiliar with libraries?)  If this is the case, he’s less villainous than pitiable.   And his reasoning for having sex with Kate shows the perils of abstinence-only sex ed and purity culture–a more streetwise woman than Kate would have noticed how bogus the logic was.

A more excusable flaw is that the protagonists don’t really follow logic chains.  They know from repeated experience that Beautiful Home only works when it (or possibly God) wants to, and only shows them what it (or God) thinks they need to see.  Yet they constantly worry about the program being abused or falling into the wrong hands.  If God is showing Ryan women in their pajamas, then there is obviously some reason why God wants Ryan to see women in their pajamas, and you shouldn’t fault Ryan for that.

But hey, people are illogical like that in real life.

I’m also a little skeptical about exploring the issue of slavery and its ill effects from the point of view of privileged white people (Merri considerably less privileged, of course.)  It worries me that the protagonists are surprised by an integrated church in the 21st Century, and that John has never seen a church that allows black people and white people to worship together before.

I see this book was self-published–the author may need a stricter editor to work out some of these problems with.

Book Review: There Are Doors

Book Review: There Are Doors by Gene Wolfe

There Are Doors by Gene WolfeMr. Green has hooked up with Lara, a woman he knows almost nothing about.  After a week, she disappears, leaving only a note explaining that “there are doors” and that he must not go through them.  Mr. Green promptly manages to stumble through such a door and finds himself in what appears to be an alternate Earth.  An Earth where Lara is a goddess, and men die if they have sex.

Mr. Green is an unreliable viewpoint character–even if he isn’t delusional or suffering from hallucinations, there’s plenty of evidence that he’s mentally ill.  It takes him a frustratingly long time to realize he isn’t on his Earth because he honestly can’t trust his own memories as to what is real.  The reader is not helped in determining how much is real and how much is madness by the fact that several characters are transparently based on the classic Joe Palooka comic strip.  (Readers born after 1980 or so might not have this problem.)

Such plot as there is is doled out sparingly, with long sections of “nothing happening” as Mr. Green gets his bearings or goes through the motions of his workaday life in what passes for the real world.  While the book comes down pretty solidly on the side of science fiction by the end, it can also be argued that Mr. Green has just had a final psychotic break from reality.

It’s an interesting change from the sort of science fiction I normally read, but I would only recommend it to readers with patience and a willingness to guess at what isn’t said.

Book Review: Zorro

Book Review: Zorro by Isabel Allende

Johnston McCulley wrote the first Zorro story, “The Curse of Capistrano” way back in 1919.  Set in Spanish California, it told the tale of Don Diego (de la) Vega, a foppish young nobleman who in secret was Zorro, the fox, masked protector of justice.  It was a modest success, but Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. read the story and loved it so much he got his movie studio to buy the rights so he could appear in the film version.

Zorro

“The Mark of Zorro” was a huge success, which inspired McCulley to write a sequel to his novel, and the rest is history.  But McCulley died some time back, and the folks who now own the Zorro trademark were worried that with no new print version, it might fall into obscurity.  So they asked Chilean author Isabel Allende to write an authorized book about the masked rider.

And so what we have here is an official Zorro fanfic.  Ms. Allende takes up the story of just how Diego came to be Zorro, from the improbable meeting of his parents, through the many circumstances that taught him the skills he’d need, to the origin of the Zorro name.  This all takes place prior to the timeframe of the first novel, where Diego was already working as Zorro with little said about his past.

It’s an interesting look at what might be necessary for Zorro to learn all the tricks he has, and expands greatly on the role of Bernardo, Diego’s mute servant and sometime Zorro decoy.  I was amused to see that Ms. Allende couldn’t resist putting in a self-insert character, a young woman who can see right through Diego’s foppish facade, and tellingly named Isabel.

There are numerous infodumps, which slow the story down and may irritate some readers who don’t care about the background of Jean Lafitte or the city of Barcelona.  I’m also told that this book is in a different style than most of Ms. Allende’s writing, so is non-indicative of her work.  Something that definitely comes from her is the moments of “magical realism”, with a certain amount of unreliable telepathy and a “Gypsy” fortuneteller who can really foresee the future.

It is good for what it is, but those seeking the full-fledged Zorro may want to return to the original books and stories.

Book Review: Redshirts

Book Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

I’ve been avoiding reviews of this book, so this may be very redundant of other things you’ve read about Redshirts.

redshirts

The Universal Union capital ship Intrepid has a problem.  Or rather, the crew does.  Especially the lower-ranked members.  It seems that every time one of the senior officers or the astrogator go on an away mission with a lower-ranked crewmember, that crewmember dies, frequently in improbable ways.  Seriously, ice sharks?  Yet the senior officers always survive.

New crew member Ensign Andrew Dahl isn’t just going to try to avoid the issue, like many of the other lower ranks.  He’s going to investigate with the help of a handful of other people in harm’s way.  But what he finds may be more than even someone trained in esoteric philosophy can handle.

This is a very metatextual novel, and a funny one.  The parallels to classic Star Trek are deliberate and pointed out in the story itself.  It’s difficult to explain further without getting into serious spoiler territory.

After the main story, there are three codas involving minor characters and how the events of the story affect their lives.  The first is a little weak, but the other two hold up nicely.

I recommend this book for science fiction fans in general and Star Trek fans in particular, and those who enjoy metatextual fiction.

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