Book Review: Masters of the Lamp | A Harvest of Hoodwinks

Book Review: Masters of the Lamp | A Harvest of Hoodwinks by Robert Lory

This is another Ace Double, two small books combined into one upside-down from each other so they make a fair-sized paperback.  In this case, a short novel and several short stories by former ad executive Robert Lory.

Lamp1Masters of the Lamp is a spy novel set in the far future.  Two agents of the Federation’s Intelligence Arm have gone missing, and the Head, an organic supercomputer, suspects a connection.  It’s up to Shamryke Odell (named after a long-extinct plant), top agent, to discover what’s up.  Though he prefers to work alone, Sham is teamed up with Aleya Nine of the Merchants’ Guild.  He’s reminded that she’s an expendable partner.

Soon enough, the agents find themselves bound to Marquette, the planet of religious fanatics.  And not just one denomination, but all sorts of religious fanatics.  Disguised as pilgrims, Sham and Aleya must discover what’s really going on behind the scenes, who’s responsible and what their ultimate goal is.

The story is James Bond-ish, with gadgets, double agents and people being killed just as they’re about to spill the secret.  Sham is alleged to be a ladies’ man, but doesn’t get any until after the story ends.  Religious belief is generally treated as a bit silly, but at least one bit of dogma turns out to be a life-saver for the cult that practices it.

Lamp2

A Harvest of Hoodwinks is an anthology of short tales linked by the theme of deception.  The most striking of the stories is “Because of Purple Elephants,” in which two small children discover an alien spaceship, with telepathic invaders aboard.  The older of the boys must make a decision that could save Earth or mean death.  “The Star Party” is interesting for following the notion of a genuine astrologer to a painful conclusion.  “Just a God” deals with an abrupt change in theology.  And “Debut” is a very short piece that’s almost all twist.

“Snowbird and the Seven Warfs,” about a Cheyenne man mistakenly drafted into an alien game show, demonstrates one of the problems that crops up in Ace Doubles.  They were still using rather old-fashioned standards when it came to talking about sex, even in 1970.  Thus the last few paragraphs take a very roundabout approach to implying that the man has had his penis enlarged.

This isn’t the best Ace Double I’ve read, but it was bargain priced, and “Debut” really is a gem.

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: 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.

Anime Review: Magi – Labyrinth of Magic

Anime Review: Magi – Labyrinth of Magic

Based on the manga by Shinobu Ohtaka, Magi is a 24-episode anime series currently streaming subtitled on the Crunchyroll website.  It’s set in an Arabian Nights-influenced world with djinn and other trappings of the genre.  Young Aladdin was raised in an isolated temple with no human contact for as long as he can remember, and is thus new to the outside world.  Good thing he has a big blue genie to help him out!

magi

In the first episode, Aladdin meets up with Ali Baba, a drifter who dreams of conquering the local “dungeon” (a mysteriously appearing building filled with traps and monsters) as it’s said anyone who survives a dungeon will gain great wealth and cool magic items.  Soon, the pair is exploring the dungeon.  But they’re not the only ones.  The local lord (who’s cruel and a little crazy) and his slaves battle Ali Baba and Aladdin.  One of the slaves, Morgiana, survives and becomes free, later joining our heroes on their adventures.

After some individual adventures, the trio reunites in Ali Baba’s hometown and the main plot kicks in.  The government has become corrupt and someone’s manipulating both it and the rebels to assure that the country is thrown into chaos.

Good points:  There’s plenty of cool fight scenes, the dungeons are inventive and there’s a nice variety of characters on the good guy side.  Sinbad, sailor of the Seven Seas, is particularly nifty.  Morgiana doesn’t get stuck with a cheerleader or damsel in distress role.

Not so good stuff:  For a series taking place in a hot desert area and the main characters spending most of their time outside in the sun, the character designs are suspiciously light-skinned.  Morgiana’s lack of agency in the early episodes may be off-putting for some viewers, we don’t get to see her real personality until episode 6, after which it never goes away again and she has full agency.  (But be aware that episode 6 might be triggery for some viewers for abuse in her backstory.)

Also, most of the bad guys are kind of cardboardy, committing evil acts because, well, they’re evil.  The big exception here is Cassim, Ali Baba’s blood brother.  While he is by no measure a good person, his motivations make sense given his background and circumstances.

Fate is a big theme in the series.  It’s explained that destiny is the force moving events in the direction of a better tomorrow.  But it’s a general trend, and many of the characters suffer great injustice and pain in the process.  The secretive organization Al-Sarmen seeks out these people to empower them to curse their fate and “reverse the flow of destiny.”   However, they have no interest in easing suffering or increasing justice, they just want to return the world to formless chaos.  For some reason.

Overall, the series (which has a hasty conclusion; the manga continues) was enjoyable to watch.  Some of its issues might make it less watchable for certain viewers.

Book Review: Universal Station

Book Review: Universal Station by Beth Brown.

This volume is by the Beth Brown who also wrote “All Dogs Go To Heaven”. Like that book, it’s a light fantasy about the afterlife. (Indeed, one of the main characters is a dog.)

Universal

Broadway musician Johnny dies in a plane crash during World War Two, and is met on “the other side” by his psychopomp, who happens to also be his beloved grandfather.  Grand escorts Johnny to the eponymous station, a transit hub for spirits to rest and recover while they get ready to move on to their final destination.

Unfortunately, there are an awful lot of dead Nazis just now, and they launch a coup to take over the Universal Station and run it their way.  Johnny and his now-talking dog must flee this onslaught.

Sadly, the charm of a talking dog is overwhelmed by the repetitive, preachy dialogue about the nature of the afterlife and how right Johnny’s grandfather, Grand, is about everything.

There’s a romance in the backstory, but if anything the dialogue in it is even more nauseating in its preciousness.

There’s a different book going on in the background that would be arguably more interesting, and whose midpoint would be about the end of this book. In it are all the actual action scenes, and the adventures of Johnny’s love interest trying to escape the Nazis.

This is an interesting curio, but it’s easy to see why it’s fallen into the memory hole.

Book Review: If I Were You

Book Review: If I Were You by L. Ron Hubbard

Before L. Ron Hubbard got involved in…you know, he was a middling-good and prolific pulp author. The Golden Age Stories line is reprinting many of his stories in attractively designed paperbacks. This volume contains two short stories, , a preview of another, a glossary (really needed this time because of heavy circus slang) and a hagiography of Hubbard that does not mention…you know by name, just calling it “serious research.” Hee. It’s double-spaced in a largish typeface for easy reading.

You

The title story concerns a little person, “Little” Tom Little, who works as a circus midget, and then discovers a mystical method for bodyswapping with other people. He promptly decides to use this to swap with the tall, imposing ringmaster Hermann Schmidt. But Schmidt has troubles of his own, which could get Tom killed regardless of which body he’s in!

There’s a nice bit of foreshadowing early in the story, with what seems like random cruelty to Tom, but is actually a hint of what Schmidt’s issues are. The lion phobia, on the other hand, was a bit too telegraphed. The payoff to that is a very exciting scene, mitigating the obviousness. There’s a nice bit of ambiguity, too, in the motives of the Professor, who leaves Tom his books of magic.

The second story, “The Last Drop” is co-authored by the much better L. Sprague de Camp. A bartender foolishly creates a cocktail with some untested syrup from Borneo; growth and shrinking hijinks ensue. A fun story that at least waves at scientific plausibility as it goes by, in the form of the square-cube law. (The glossary explains it for the benefit of anyone who might have forgotten.)

While it’s a handsome package, and the stories are fun, the book is thin on content for the price. I’d recommend looking for used copies at a steep discount, or checking it out from the library.

Comic Book Review: Demon Knights Vol. 1 (Seven Against the Dark)

Comic Book Review: Demon Knights Vol. 1 (Seven Against the Dark) by Paul Cornell, Diogenes Neves & Oclair Albert

demonknight

When DC Comics rebooted their mainline universe in 2011, this left them free to rearrange the past of that universe .  To fill in part of that timeline, we have this title.

After a brief moment at the fall of Camelot, we see the town of Little Spring, a relatively peaceful village that just so happens to be host to seven ill-assorted strangers.  It’s a close call as to whether these strangers or the encroaching army of the Questing Queen is more of a danger.  Nevertheless, it falls to this ragtag band of misfits to defend Little Spring until it can be relieved by Alba Sarum.

The “heroes” of this story don’t much like each other, and several of them aren’t very heroic at all.  But like it or not, they have to work together…or do they?

This is one of the more successful reimaginings of the New 52.  Paul Cornell does good banter, and blends what we “know” of various characters with new information in interesting ways.  Several mysteries are set up, only a couple of which actually get movement in this volume, which contains the first seven issues of the series.  Also, kudos to Mr. Cornell for a relatively diverse cast, and not pretending it was only white able-bodied men who did anything important in the Middle Ages.

There’s quite a bit of gory violence, and some dark themes–I would recommend this for older teens and up.

 

 

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